Happy Bourbon Heritage Month!

As summer rolls to a close, the kids head back to school and the pennant races heat up, September is the gateway to my favorite season of the year: autumn.  College football kicked off last weekend, pro football this weekend, and we all know that with fall comes the new 2014 releases by our favorite distilleries.

September is also National Bourbon Heritage Month, and I can think of no better place to celebrate this year than in the Bluegrass State itself.  So this year, my wife and I are headed back to Kentucky (the third time this year!) for the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in a couple of weeks.  I could not be more excited.  We have our tickets to some events, and I look forward to blogging about it all when I get back.

So please, pour three fingers of your favorite, and join me in celebrating this country’s best spirit – to bourbon!

A nice pour for National Bourbon Month!
A nice pour for National Bourbon Month!
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A trip to visit Pappy…and Four Roses, Willett, Wild Turkey…Part Two

A trip to visit Pappy…and Four Roses, Willett, Wild Turkey…Part Two

Summer has finally come to Michigan, with heat, humidity and thunderstorms.  What better time to continue with the blog about the Pappy For Your Pappy dinner and Kentucky trip?

As I mentioned in my earlier blog, I was feeling pretty ill the first day of our Kentucky trip, and by the time we left Four Roses, I was becoming very concerned: would this stomach bug keep me from the Pappy tasting and dinner at Buffalo Trace?  I didn’t want to think about it, but the truth was, it was a real possibility.  My wife and I discussed, and decided to keep on moving, make a trip to a few of Kentucky’s finer liquor stores in search of new hooch, then head to Wild Turkey to take in the sights and tastes.

This plan was doomed from the start.  We drove to Lexington, to shop at the massive Liquor Barn store, and were able to procure a few spirits not available here in the mitten state (as well as a case of the outstanding Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale).  We then backtracked to the Wild Turkey distillery, hoping to catch a mid-afternoon tour…

Bourbon Aisle at the Liquor Barn
Bourbon Aisle at the Liquor Barn
Wishbone at Wild Turkey
Wishbone at Wild Turkey

Unfortunately, it was not meant to be.  We had just missed one tour, and would have to wait an hour for the next one.  In my state, that did not seem like a great idea – certainly not with a delicious dinner and some Pappy Van Winkle waiting for me!  Luckily, the Wild Turkey visitor center has a nice set of displays dedicated to the history of the drink, as well as the legacy of Master Distillers Jimmy and Eddie Russell.  We wandered around the nice grounds and looked at the displays, until finally it was time to try to get a little rest and hope to feel better for the big event.

And in large part – it worked!  I may have still been a little queasy, but when the time came to head to Buffalo Trace Distillery and have a dinner and tasting with the Van Winkles, I seemed to shake it off.  I’ve been to the beautiful Buffalo Trace distillery before, so we decided to skip the tour this time, for restful purposes.

Buffalo Trace Distillery
Buffalo Trace Distillery

Now, one thing I’d really like to mention is how nice, personable and kindly every person we have ever met affiliated with Buffalo Trace has been.  This year was no exception.  As I mentioned before, the tickets for this year’s Pappy dinner were a popular item, and I’m sure they have more than had their hands full with it.  But, just as last year, every person was sweet and wonderful, even remembering the names of my family members that had purchased us the tickets before check-in.

We made our way over to the Elmer T. Lee Clubhouse to find our seat, and have a cocktail before dinner.  Just as last year, the room was adorned beautifully, with candles in Pappy Van Winkle bottles on every table, the tasting glasses out and poured, and tables numbered.

A Well Dressed Table
A Well Dressed Table

One of the great parts of a dinner like this is sitting and talking with other bourbon enthusiasts, and we certainly had a great time with that.  Our table had wonderfully nice and interesting people, and we were pleased to find out we were sitting with Tim Beckelhimer and Larry Parece, who run The Bourbon Guys blog (http://www.thebourbonguys.com/).  Over a lovely dinner of salad, asparagus and steak, we talked about what brought all of us to bourbon, what is available where we live (a father and daughter at the table came in from Louisiana and North Carolina, respectively), and our fondness for that rarest of drinks, Pappy Van Winkle.

Julian and Preston Van Winkle took the microphone, and led us through the tasting of each of this years tasting selections: the 12 year Family Reserve and the 15, 20 and 23 year bourbons.  As always, they were amazing…with one exception.

The 20 Year Pappy Van Winkle, which no less than Preston Van Winkle referred to as “the one that put us on the map,” tasted…very weak.  Like 40 proof week.  Had someone snuck a sample and replaced the precious drink with water?  We will never know…

But the other four were, of course, fantastic.  Even the 23 was a little smoother than when I had last tasted it.   Then they open up the floor for questions.  It was very similar to last year (Any tips to finding Pappy? How does my state get more?), with a few new ones.  One person asked the difference between Weller and Van Winkle, which both use an identical recipe.  Julian explained that it was a matter of selection (all Van Winkles are sampled and chosen by the father and son team, and are stored uniquely in the middle of the barrelhouse), where as Weller takes the rest, and then blends their final product.  There was talk about the theft (no one was ever arrested, and Julian suggested that no one would be, after police interest ironically dried up post-election)and the history of Van Winkle, Stitzel-Weller.

Julian and Preston Van Winkle
Julian and Preston Van Winkle

After the Q and A, the Van Winkles retreated back to the Buffalo Trace Visitor Center, where they were on hand to sign items, and answer questions.  I said hello, and then we headed for the hotel.  We had another big day ahead of us.

Preston Van WInkle, Julian Van Winkle and Dan
Preston Van WInkle, Julian Van Winkle and Dan

A trip to visit Pappy…and Four Roses, Willett, Wild Turkey…Part One

Two weeks ago, as I posted here, I was lucky enough to be the recipient of a fantastic gift from my family: tickets for my wife and I to travel to Kentucky and go to an event titled “Pappy For Your Pappy.”  The event is exactly what the title insinuates – over Father’s Day weekend, it is a dinner at Buffalo Trace Distillery where Julian and Preston Van Winkle join those lucky diners in the Elmer T. Lee Clubhouse to sample Pappy Van Winkle through the meal.

With a birthday so close to Father’s Day, my sister and mother presented us with tickets as a birthday gift last year, and we enjoyed the event so much that we relished the opportunity to go back.  That said, the Pappy craze, not close to slowing up, made it such a hot ticket that this year, one had to enter a raffle just to get the opportunity to buy tickets!  My sister was fortunate enough to be drawn, and so they presented us the tickets as a gift and sent us on our way.

Last year, we spent the time exploring distilleries and the local area.  We toured Woodford Reserve (which I will recap in the future here), and Lexington Kentucky, and spent a lovely evening staying at Shaker Village.  This year, with the event on Friday (as opposed to Saturday), we revised our plans a bit: we headed down Thursday evening, staying in Harrodsburg (at the lovely Beaumont Inn), and made plans to visit the distilleries at Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Willett, and Buffalo Trace, as well as *gulp* zip line in caverns under Louisville.

There was only one problem – my stomach disagreed.  I awoke Friday with a case of stomach flu that turned my mood as dour as the cloudy, rainy weather.  But it didn’t dissuade us from trooping forward – we headed over to Four Roses to tour the beautiful facility.

Four Roses Distillery
Four Roses Distillery Visitor Center

And beautiful it is – the uniqueness of a Spanish Mission style set of buildings against the rolling Kentucky backdrop certainly makes you feel just a little out of place.  As you might imagine, there are roses everywhere, and so we parked our car and headed on inside.

Visitor Center and Gift Shop at Four Roses Distillery
Visitor Center and Gift Shop at Four Roses Distillery

Bourbon is huge business here in Kentucky, and the distilleries all know it – the gift shops in every place I’ve visited rival those of any National Park or recognizable tourist site, and Four Roses is no exception.  Their Gift Shop is large and full of every product you might want, including bottles of their yellow label, Small Batch and Single Barrel products.  Like most other distilleries, there were no available bottles of the more rare and sought after specialty pours, like cask proof, anniversary editions, etc.  But it was a pleasant place to spend an hour while awaiting our tour (there is also a nice pavilion outside).

The tour itself starts with a video explaining the history of Four Roses, and to those who know, it is a unique history indeed: Four Roses was arguably the most popular bourbon in America for many decades (interesting fact – the large advertisement behind the kissing sailor/nurse Times Square V-J day photo? Four Roses!). In 1943, it was purchased by the Canadian Seagrams company, and in the mid-1950s Seagrams shifted the bourbon sales to emerging markets in Japan and post war Europe, while abandoning Four Roses bourbon altogether in the United States.  Unfortunately, though, they continued the name Four Roses, but changed the product to a low quality, blended neutral grain whiskey.  I was unaware of that history myself until I gave my father a bottle of Single Barrel Four Roses last year for Father’s Day.  He enjoys a good whiskey, but is not particularly a drinker, and one day mentioned to a friend that I had brought him a bottle.  His friend scoffed and suggested I was trying to kill him with a bottle of rotgut!  My father had to inform him that those days of horrible product are passed.

Visitor Center, Gift Shop and Tasting Room at Four Roses
Visitor Center, Gift Shop and Tasting Room at Four Roses

In 1995, Four Roses brought in Jim Rutledge as Master Distiller and, in the early 2000’s, thanks to some sales and acquisitions, Seagram sold Four Roses to Japanese company Kirin, who have restored the reputation and quality of the Four Roses label and returned product to American shelves (while eliminating the offensive rotgut).

The tour then started in earnest, where our guide explained that Four Roses uses two main mash bills, and utilize five different proprietary yeasts.

Two different mash bills —

75% corn, 20% rye, 5% malted barley
60% corn, 35% rye, 5% malted barley

Crossed with five different proprietary yeast strains:
V – delicate fruitiness
K – slightly spicy character
O – rich fruitiness
Q – floral essence
F – herbal

making a total of ten different casked bourbons. Four Roses uses single story barrel houses (at a different location).  After the film and walk through, we started the tour.

The tour group outside the Four Roses Distillery
The tour group outside the Four Roses Distillery
In front of Four Roses Distillery
In front of Four Roses Distillery
Control Room of Four Roses Distillery
Control Room of Four Roses Distillery
The proprietary yeasts at work
The proprietary yeasts at work
Fermentation
Fermentation
Mash fermenting to become Four Roses Bourbon
Mash fermenting to become Four Roses Bourbon

The tour itself takes about 45 minutes, and is a good glimpse inside a medium sized Bourbon producer.  The barrels are filled and stored offsite, so it really is only distilling taking place here, and while they certainly take it seriously, it isn’t as ‘craft’ as Grand Traverse was, nor as large as Wild Turkey.

Four Roses Copper Still at work
Four Roses Copper Still at work
Up close and personal in a copper still
Up close and personal in a copper still

After walking through the fermenting, distilling and preparation processes – they fill up tanker trucks to deliver to the store houses an hour away – we headed inside for the best part: tasting!  There, we enjoyed all three available bottlings, thanked our guide, and moved on down the road to Wild Turkey.  Stomach bug be damned, there was bourbon to taste!

In our next post – it’s Wild Turkey, and dinner with the Van Winkles!

My old Kentucky home…

I am in Kentucky once more, my wife and I lucky enough to be going to the “Pappy for your Pappy” dinner and tasting event with Preston and Julian Van Winkle at Buffalo Trace Distillery. This is our second year, and we are mixing in a little bit more of the Bourbon Trail this year, with visits planned to Four Roses and Wild Turkey, as well as a few other stops.

I will be posting a few items as we go, and a recap next week… Let the good times roll!

Bourbon Classic Day Two: Day-drinking

Bourbon Classic Day Two: Day-drinking

Saturday morning opened with clouds in Louisville, but that did not put a damper of any kind on the Bourbon Classic, or our trip in general. We woke up relatively early, and went to meet a gentleman from whom I purchased a bottle of Weller 12 Year (unavailable in Michigan) for later review.

I would like to say this about Kentucky – I have now met with several third-party “craigslist” style sellers to procure bottles not available, or hard to find, in Michigan – and have found there is a genuine friendliness in these exchanges that I have not found anywhere else.  Maybe it’s just better manners, but my wife and I were chatted up, about bourbon and life in general by every ‘collector’s market’ person we met.  Here in Michigan, the same transactions are tense as a TV drug deal, and all of the friendliness too.

We wondered over to a store called Vault Liquor and added a few more bottles of more accessible bourbon to our hall with the help of the friendly gentleman behind the counter of this round, strangely set-up store.

From there, it was back to the Classic, and it did not disappoint.

Master Distillers & Brand Legends: Wes Henderson, Angel's Envy; Fred Noe, Jim Beam; Harlen Wheatley, Buffalo Trace; Tom Bulleit, Bulleit Bourbon; Daniel Preston, Cacao Prieto Artisan Distillery; Colin Spoelman, King's County Distillery; Willie Pratt, Michter's; Dave Schmier, Redemption Bourbon; Drew Kulsveen, Willett; Jimmy Russell, Wild Turkey
Master Distillers & Brand Legends: Wes Henderson, Angel’s Envy;
Fred Noe, Jim Beam;
Harlen Wheatley, Buffalo Trace;
Tom Bulleit, Bulleit Bourbon;
Daniel Preston, Cacao Prieto Artisan Distillery;
Colin Spoelman, King’s County Distillery;
Willie Pratt, Michter’s;
Dave Schmier, Redemption Bourbon;
Drew Kulsveen, Willett; Jimmy Russell, Wild Turkey

The Classic kicked off with a panel discussion where some of the biggest and most famous Master Distillers, as well as some younger up-and-comers, talked frankly about bourbon trends, tastes, the future of the industry, how to maintain quality but be inventive, and many other topics.  It was extremely fun, but also incredibly informative.  Some of the things I noted:

  • They all were in agreement that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with micro-distilleries or start-up labels outsourcing the actual alcohol production, but that the quality comes into question depending more on which supplier they use, and how involved they were in the recipe (as opposed to buying bulk leftovers).
  • They also agreed that there is an incredibly high demand for all bourbon right now, so it will be very hard and expensive for new micro-distilleries to start.
  • Fred Noe from Jim Beam said he truly doesn’t anticipate any changes to the Beam model, recipe or productions once the Suntory purchase is finalized, and that it has the most to do with expanding markets, not changing products.
  • Jimmy Russell, the legendary Master Distiller from Wild Turkey, pointed out the changing demographics of the bourbon audience.  “It used to be old men, going into the backroom at the bar, and having a cigar…playing poker,” he said, then pointing out the audience is now as diverse as the brands themselves.
  • There was some disagreeing over whether or not the aging process could be hurried or enhanced by other methods.  Most of the panel felt strongly that you can’t rush aging and attempts to do so are failures.  Daniel Preston, from Cacao Prieto, disagreed, and pointed to investments made in limestone mines where the barrels can be heated and cooled daily, and therefore, aged faster.  This was met with much skepticism.
  • A reminder that, as bourbon is an aged process, true market research is difficult – higher production today takes years to hit the market, and if the market is slower, there can be significant financial loss.

We left this fun session and went to the first of our breakout sessions, Bourbon Flavors with chef Ouita Michel of the Holly Hill Inn.

Chef Ouita Michel, Holly Hill Inn, walks us through bourbon taste profiles
Chef Ouita Michel, Holly Hill Inn, walks us through bourbon taste profiles

Now, I had expected this session to be more about recognizing flavors in bourbon itself, but it was more of a lesson in taste pairings between bourbon and food.  Using a variety of different tastes, and Woodford Reserve bourbon, we sampled and noted how sharing each sip with a food taste enhanced the overall experience.

Food pairings with Woodford Reserve
Food pairings with Woodford Reserve

As we sampled dark chocolate, Parmesan cheese, orange, dried cherries, hazelnuts and sorghum, we tasted Woodford and enjoyed.

Next, it was a more formal food session with Albert Schmid, National Center for Hospitality Studies, Sullivan University.  Here, Chef Schmid walked us through some do’s and don’ts of cooking with bourbon, and showed us two recipes that we then got to sample – a bourbon chicken and Woodford Pudding.

Albert Schmid, National Center for Hospitality Studies, Sullivan University
Albert Schmid, National Center for Hospitality Studies, Sullivan University

Both were delicious (we got to sample each), and when it adjourned, it was time for the Ultimate Bourbon Experience.

This is an amazing thing – there is plentiful delicious food – beef tenderloin, pork tenderloin, corn pudding, sausage stuffed mushrooms, and on and on – and you walk through the lobby and main areas with a bourbon glass, getting samples from and chatting with representatives from almost all of the major and many smaller distilleries.

For review purposes, this isn’t the best way.  But for sheer enjoyment, most definitely! We started at Angels Envy, sampling the A.E. Rye, then moved on to the Western Spirits display, makers of the Calumet Farm bourbon I’ve spoke highly of.  To be honest, the representative there was not very helpful in talking about the bourbons, and didn’t particularly seem interested in it.  Disappointing, but I had a drink of their Lexington bourbon and moved on.

Nelson’s Green Brier distillery has a great story, and it was a pleasure hearing Charlie Nelson tell it.  The Belle Meade bourbon was distinctive, and I hope to get a bottle to review here in Michigan soon.  From there we wandered longer, stopping for a bite, then a drink. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Prudence dictated we head back to our hotel at a decent enough time to take off for home bright and early (to prepare for a Super Bowl party we host), but I cannot say enough great things about this event.  It was truly a great time, and I hope to return next year.  Fantastic.

bourbon. Mmmmmmm
bourbon. Mmmmmmm